It’s the age old question every child asks their parents – Mommy, Daddy, where do zombies come from? It’s the 9th night of my Halloween blog countdown, let’s find out!
Well, I, for one, have never really loved zombies. (I mean no one loves zombies, right? They’re gross.) But, people love to watch zombies terrorize and destroy the world. I haven’t been “bitten” by the zombie book/TV show/movie craze. I can’t recall reading any zombie books. I can’t handle watching The Walking Dead. (I tried to watch one episode with my husband. I got about five minutes in and one formerly cute blonde child turned into a zombie before I said “Nope. I’m out of here.”)
Me + Zombies = BAD
I have made it through the movie Omega Man, which is viewed as sort of a zombie movie, but I am not sure I’d say it is really representative of current zombie lore. The book it originated from, I am Legend, is also technically about vampires, although there are undead zombie elements to it. I found both movies uncomfortably terrifying in a way I don’t feel about other monster lit or cinema. There is something too close to possible about zombies. I don’t worry about some fangy, bloodthirsty creatures of the night. But part of me thinks a virus that turns people into violent brain eaters is plausible.
It’s a good thing that I was raised by rational human beings or right now I might be holed up in my basement stockpiling canned goods and counting my cache of weapons in preparation for the zombie apocalypse. (By the way, I wouldn’t be the only one doing this. Check out czombiesurvivalkit.org)
But where did this idea of zombies come from? Where did it originate? I did a little Internet digging into the subject, as I like to do. Here is what I found out.
Etymology of the Word Zombie
The Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of the word is West African, and compares it to the Kongo words “nzambi” (god) and “zumbi” (fetish). The term zombie or zombi also originally also referred to a snake-god in the voodoo religion.
The first recorded use of the word “zombie” comes from the Brazilian poet Robert Southey. He used the world “zombie” in an 1819 poem, which referred to the Afro-Brazilian rebel leader named Zumbi and the etymology of his name in “nzambi”.
Magical Origins of the Zombie
The general consensus is that the concept of undead in its current form originated in Haiti. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as the people of West Africa moved to the New World, thanks to the awful institution of slavery, they brought with them their religious beliefs and practices.
According to Wikipedia, the Voodoo belief went like this: The voodoo deity Baron Samedi gathered the dead from their grave to bring them to a heavenly afterlife in Africa (“Guinea”). However, if they had offended him in some way, they would be enslaved after death as a zombie. A number of scholars have pointed out the significance of the zombie figure as a metaphor for the history of slavery in Haiti.
This zombie concept eventual grew into the pervasive zombie concept we see today.
Zombies in Literature
There have not been many books written about zombies. If you look up “zombie books” on Goodreads, you get a list of 1084 books. However, it seems a travel writer really started it all.
William Seabrook went to Haiti in 1927 and wrote The Magic Island about his trip where he participated in Voodoo ceremonies and claimed to have been possessed by the gods. In one particular chapter, Dead Men Working in Cane Fields, Seabrook goes to the plantation of the Haitian-American Sugar Corporation to see zombies who work the fields at night.
Interestingly, another, more famous novelist also wrote a tale of travel and zombies about Haiti – Zora Neale Hurston. Notably: Hurston trained as a professional anthropologist and studied ‘Hoodoo’ in New Orleans. She also trained to be a Voodoo priest in Haiti. Tell My Horse, published in 1937, Hurston claims that zombies exist and gives an account of her encounter with a real zombie.
Zombies in Film
Zombies began to enter the modern of film mostly in the first part of the 20th Century. The first zombie film of significance was Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, in 1932. However it was probably George Romero’s 1968 B-movie, Night of the Living Dead, that put zombie’s on the map, so to speak.
Zombies in Music
Yes, of course, there is Rob Zombie once of the music group White Zombie (yes like the movie). But, for me, the most famous zombie will always be Michael Jackson! The Thriller video is the only type of zombie I can really handle..